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According to Ralph: The Strategy of Losing

by Ralph Strangis / Dallas Stars

This morning’s reading took me to Nate Silver’s  (“The Signal and The Noise”) site and a piece which was Twitter-titled “Here’s proof the NHL’s “loser point” encourages bad hockey”, written by Noah Davis and Michael Lopez.  Silver’s 538 blog (fivethirtyeight.com) is constantly impressive, his reputation as a top sports and political statistician is beyond reproach.  He’s correctly predicted basically every American election for the last half-dozen years, following his first career as baseball’s preeminent advanced stats guru.  As editor-in-chief of the site he founded he supervises content on politics, economics, science and sports.  When something catches Nate or his staff’s radar – pay attention. 



I’ve always wondered about the practice of rewarding teams for actually losing a game – something unheard of in the NFL, NBA or MLB – but the NHL has simultaneously (as Davis and Lopez statistically backup) fostered a thriving culture of changing how teams play when forced with the prospect of not getting past 60 minutes to collect their point. 

The funny thing is – the points handed out for losing a game really don’t matter anyway.  I’ll say that again – points handed out for overtime and shootout losses DO NOT affect the standings.  This whole thing is a carryover from when games finished as “Ties” and the teams split the points.  But now they’re all decided – so what are we doing?
    
Let me show you the numbers and you tell me.  Here are the current standings for the playoff spots including points awarded for losing games:
(Prior to games starting April, 1)

EASTERN CONFERENCE   WESTERN CONFERENCE
     
ATLANTIC DIVISION    CENTRAL DIVISION
     
1. Montreal – 47-22-8, 102 Points   1. Nashville – 47-22-9, 103 Points
2.Tampa – 47-24-7, 101 Points      2. St. Louis – 46-23-7, 99 Points
3.Detroit – 40-23-13, 93 Points    3. Chicago – 46-24-6, 98 Points
     
METROPOLITAN DIVISION    PACIFIC DIVISION
     
1. NY Rangers – 48-21-7, 103 Points    1. Anaheim – 49-22-7, 105 Points
2. Pittsburgh – 42-23-11, 95 Points    2. Vancouver – 45-27-5, 95 Points
3. NY Islanders – 45-27-5, 95 Points     3. Calgary – 42-28-7, 91 Points
     
EASTERN WILDCARD   WESTERN WILDCARD
     
1. Washington – 42-25-10, 94 Points   1. Minnesota – 44-25-7, 95 Points
2. Boston – 39-25-13, 91 Points       2. Winnipeg – 39-26-12, 90 Points

                                     

Now – let’s pretend there are no overtime or shootout points – just wins and losses.  We’ll move over the OT/SO loss column and just make them losses.  How does that change the standings?

EASTERN CONFERENCE   WESTERN CONFERENCE
     
ATLANTIC DIVISION    CENTRAL DIVISION
     
1. Montreal – 47-30   1. Nashville – 47-31
2. Tampa – 47-31    2. St. Louis – 46-30
3. Detroit – 40-36   3. Chicago – 46-30
     
METROPOLITAN DIVISION    PACIFIC DIVISION
     
1. NY Rangers – 48-29    1. Anaheim – 49-29
2. NY Islanders – 45-32     2. Vancouver – 45-32
3. Pittsburgh – 42-34   3. Calgary – 42-35
     
EASTERN WILDCARD   WESTERN WILDCARD
     
1. Washington – 42-35   1. Minnesota – 44-32
2. Boston – 39-38   2. Winnipeg – 39-38

 

What happens without the “loser points”?  Not much.  In the West, the same teams are in the exact same spots, with the exception of St. Louis and Chicago having identical records and needing a tiebreaker instead of the 1- point standings differential.  In the East, the same 8 teams qualify for the playoffs but Pittsburgh drops below the Islanders because – you know – they haven’t won as many games… 

But what about the race to keep more teams interested late in the season and trying to get into a Wildcard spot?  No difference either.  Let’s look at it under the Win/Loss system:

EASTERN WILDCARD       WESTERN WILDCARD
1. Pittsburgh – 42-34     1. Minnesota – 44-32
2. Boston – 39-38   2. Winnipeg – 39-38
     
- Ottawa – 38-38    -  Los Angeles – 37-39
- Columbus – 37-39   - Dallas – 37-40
- Florida – 35-42   - San Jose – 37-39

 No difference in the West.  The only difference in the Wildcard race in the East is that Florida drops below Columbus. They go from 10th to 11th.  And even cosmetically, I’m not more or less interested or realistic about my own team looking at it from a “wins out” then “points out” perspective – are you?

But as 538’s piece so clearly illustrates, the culture has been clearly compromised.  Coaches and General Managers believe the point matters, they believe getting past 60 minutes will help them get into the playoffs.  Under the current system – it does not.  Winning gets them in. 

And while they debate away how to settle games, it might be a time to look at reforming an archaic formula that has only served to confuse the casual fan while shredding what should be the most compelling and competitive portions of late-season games. 

 

 

 

             

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